This article is part of the Guns & America explainer series. You can read other entries here.
Left unsecured, guns can be dangerous. While many experts suggest that storing firearms locked away and separate from ammunition can save lives, there is no federal law requiring gun owners to do so.
Guns pose a particular risk of suicide. Currently 60% of all gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides.
Guns that aren’t safely stored can also be stolen and used in homicides and other crimes. A 2017 Harvard and Northeastern study found gun owners who didn’t lock up firearms were more than twice as likely than those who did to have their guns stolen.
Minors living in homes with unsecured guns are at especially high risk of suicide and accidental firearm injury. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study found that more than 4 million children live in homes with an unlocked, loaded weapon. And a NVISS study of firearm suicides among youths ages 17 and under found that more than 80 percent of victims used a firearm belonging to a family member, usually a parent. And a separate study has found that most guns used in school shootings also come from home.
What’s a ‘Safe Storage’ Law?
Safety experts recommend securing guns with a trigger or cable locking device, or locking guns up in a cabinet or biometric safe that can only be accessed by the owner. They also suggest that gun owners store ammunition locked away separately from weapons.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearm industry trade group, suggests that gun owners should “make absolutely sure that firearms in your home are securely stored out of reach of children and other unauthorized persons.” Gun control advocates do, too. Even the NRA makes recommendations for safe gun storage.
A 2019 Guns & America/APM Research/Call To Mind survey, however, found that while more than 60% of gun owners say they favor safe storage of weapons, 1 in 5 “never” lock up their firearms. A 2018 study by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that nearly half (46%) of gun owners surveyed don’t safely store their weapons.
There is no requirement for the safe storage of firearms under current federal law. However, a 2005 law requires that all handguns sold by dealers be accompanied by a secure gun safety device such as a cable lock.
Nearly a dozen states have some kind of law concerning firearm locks or safe storage, but Massachusetts is the only state that generally requires that all firearms be stored with a lock in place. California, Connecticut, and New York also impose this requirement in certain situations.
Massachusetts’ firearm suicide rate in 2018 — 1.86 deaths for every 100,000 people — was more than three times lower than the national average — 7.04 deaths for every 100,000 people — according to data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
In Oregon, a 2018 gun storage bill that faced strong opposition from gun rights advocates failed to move forward in the statehouse. It would have required guns to be secured with trigger locks or in a locked container when not in use.
What Is A CAP Law? Why Is It Different?
However, many more states have laws designed to limit minors’ access to guns in the home. These are known as Child Access Prevention laws. At least 27 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted CAP laws, which take a variety of forms. The strongest regulations impose criminal liability when a minor is likely to gain access to a negligently stored firearm, regardless of whether the minor actually gains access (California). At least 14 states and D.C. have this strict liability law. The weakest merely prohibit certain persons, such as parents or guardians, from directly providing a firearm to a minor (Utah).
There is a wide range of laws that fall somewhere between these extremes, including ones that impose criminal liability for negligently stored firearms, but only when the child uses the firearm and causes death or serious injury. State-level CAP laws also differ on the definition of “minor,” with some states defining that as anyone under 18 and others defining it lower.
What Does the Research Say about Safe Storage Laws and Gun Violence?
A landmark 1997 study from the University of Washington found that unintentional firearm deaths among young people fell by 23% in 12 states where safe storage laws had been in effect for at least one year. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that states requiring gun locks experienced a 68% lower suicide rate compared with states that had no similar requirement. And a 2019 Harvard study found nearly one-third of youth suicides or accidental deaths could be prevented by requiring guns to be locked when stored.
A 2020 meta-analysis of 18 different gun policies by the RAND Corporation found that CAP laws have reduced both firearm suicides and accidental shootings among young people. The RAND team concluded that CAP laws were the most effective out of 18 categories of laws it examined.
Most research concerns the effect of safe storage laws on suicides and accidental gun deaths. The impact on homicides, nonfatal assaults and mass shootings is not as plentiful. In the RAND Corporation’s recent analysis, for example, it found “limited” evidence that CAP laws had any effect on violent crime and “inconclusive” evidence that CAP laws had an effect on mass shootings.
Opposition to Safe Storage Laws
Some gun rights groups oppose safe storage laws over concerns that these storage devices prevent quick access to weapons for self-defense. NRA representatives have argued that the “mandatory use of a locking device can greatly diminish reaction times under duress. Being forced to fumble with a lock and key in a self-defense situation could mean the difference between life and death.”
Statistics on defensive gun use are widely disputed, but most scholars agree this is a very rare scenario. FBI crime data, for example, suggest there are only about 100 homicides during burglaries of homes or businesses per year. And this analysis by Harvard’s David Hemenway found that people defended themselves with a gun in just 0.9% of crimes from 2007-2011.
The Future of Safe Storage Laws
Democrats have introduced bills in the U.S. House and Senate that would set federal standards for safe gun storage, as well as give states incentives to create and implement safe gun storage laws. The bills are based on a piece of Connecticut legislation known as “Ethan’s Law” that passed in 2019 following the death of Ethan Song from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. So far, federal versions of Ethan’s Law have not moved out of committees.
New York and Virginia both recently strengthened their existing safe storage laws. Colorado was considering a measure that would make it a crime for gun owners to leave weapons unlocked where children are in the home, but it was indefinitely tabled in June. Oregon lawmakers were also considering a safe storage proposal as part of this year’s legislative session, but it and a separate petition appear to have been lost in the shuffle caused by COVID-19.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.